Are Tech Giants To Blame For The Worsening Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teenagers and Can They Be Held Accountable?

January 30, 2023

Since the early 2000s, the rise of the Internet and social media has caused a radical cultural shift. The opportunities and innovations arising from current technology are seemingly endless and have taken society to new heights, but these benefits have come at a cost. While providing a platform to connect and form relationships, the rise of social media has led to an increase in “unrealistic expectations about body image and sources of popularity, normalization of risk-taking behaviors, and can be detrimental to mental health.” Along with this increased social media use, rates of mental health issues among children have been surging since 2010. By 2018, suicide officially became the “second leading cause of death for youths.” While society is facing this harrowing crisis, particularly its alarming effects on adolescents, one industry has been profiting big: Big Tech companies. 

On January 6, the Seattle School District filed suit against the parent companies behind TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, arguing that their platforms have been designed to “exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their users into spending more and more time on their platforms.” The school district claims that the companies’ “techniques are both particularly effective and harmful to the youth audience Defendants have intentionally cultivated, creating a mental health crisis among America’s youth.” “Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants’ social media platforms,” according to the school district. Back in 2020, an exposed marketing plan within Instagram’s internal documents evidenced the strategic and intentional nature of the plan to target the youth. According to the New York Times, one of the documents it obtained stated, “[i]f we lose the teen foothold in the U.S. we lose the pipeline.

Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants’ social media platforms.

In its almost 100-page complaint, the Seattle School District details how the named major technology companies have intentionally targeted teenagers, who are more likely to have a phone and use social media, and the extent to which social media use has played a vital role in the growing proportion of teenagers who suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. The complaint stated that “one systematic review of 16 studies on the effects of social media on mental health found social media use increases levels of anxiety and depression.”

The school district’s own King County has “seen drastic increases in suicides, attempted suicides, and mental-health related ER visits.” This trend is not unique to King County, and it has become clear to parents and schools all over the country that this crisis must be handled. In its complaint, the Seattle School District explicitly blames media giants like Meta for the mental health crisis today, as they consistently push harmful content like “extreme diet plans, encouragement of self-harm, and more.” The Meta platform, which houses Facebook and Instagram, reaches more than “3.6 billion users worldwide,” and after being acquired by the platform, Instagram has experienced extraordinary user growth, with more than 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide by 2021, including almost 160 million users in the United States alone. The school district claims that these social media platforms send push notifications and emails at night when teenagers should be sleeping or during school hours, “prompting children to re-engage with Defendants’ platforms at times when using them is harmful to their health and well-being.”  

[I]f we lose the teen foothold in the U.S. we lose the pipeline.

Meta, TikTok, Google and the other named platforms may attempt to shield themselves from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents technology companies from being held liable for what third parties post on their platforms. However, the Seattle School District’s complaint “appears to maneuver around Section 230’s legal protections,” as it states that “Plaintiff is not alleging Defendants are liable for what third-parties have said on Defendants’ platforms but, rather, for Defendants’ own conduct.” These technology companies have allegedly promoted harmful content, designed and marketed their platforms to target adolescents, created harmful content, and distributed and transmitted content that “they know or have reason to know is harmful….” The school district’s argument focuses on the fact that social media platforms use algorithms and design features to maximize the amount of time users spend on the sites – not on particular content.  

Because the Seattle School District’s claims arise from the companies’ status as designers, marketers, and distributors of harmful material on their sites, it remains unclear how the court will rule on this argument that Section 230 does not provide full protection to these companies. If the school district’s argument proves successful and the tech companies themselves can be held accountable for their part in exacerbating the mental health crisis among the youth, this casecould have serious implications regarding the future of tech companies’ liability and their business strategies moving forward.  

Brooke Siegal

Brooke Siegal graduated from the George Washington University in 2021 with a major in Political Science and minor in Psychology. In law school, Brooke is currently the Secretary of the Carolina Health Law Organization and a staff member at the North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology.